Understanding social protection in a world on the move

  • Peggy Levitt
22 February, 2017

Donald Trump fooled us all. And although we cannot know for sure if and how he will make good on his many outlandish promises, one thing is for certain: in the US, sanctioned racism and xenophobia are reaching heights that most hoped were long gone. Europe is not far behind.

But even if President Trump succeeds in building his wall or the European Union somehow closes its borders, it will not stop migration. In 2014, nearly 1 billion people (or roughly one out of every seven people) moved by choice or by force, with great success or great struggle.

These individuals often belong to transnational families. They are parents and children, sisters and brothers who, though separated by physical distance, still rely on the same bank account, care for the same children and aging relatives, and support the same political and religious leaders.  They are community members who raise money in the United States, France and Germany to build roads, schools, and health clinics back in villages in Latin America or Africa. No wall can completely break these families or communities apart.

One troubling aspect of this phenomenon is the political stratification it produces. More and more, migrants are permanently impermanent—members without residence in the countries that they come from and only limited members with limited rights in the countries where they settle. The approximately 11.1 million unauthorized migrants living in the United States (which is 3.5 per cent of the population) are a clear example of this.  So are the nearly 90 per cent of the population living in Qatar who are not citizens. But so are the business executives, bankers, professors, and medical professionals who circulate throughout the world seeking better job opportunities.

We need, therefore, to rethink our assumptions about how people live and work, how and where the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are fulfilled, and about how social welfare is provided. Families and communities cross borders but the legal, pension, health care, and education systems that serve them do not. New social safety nets are needed that respond more effectively to our current world on the move.

In a new special issue of Oxford Development Studies, ‘Transnational Social Protection: Setting the Agenda’, my colleagues Jocelyn Viterna, Armin Mueller, Charlotte Lloyd and I propose a framework for understanding the new forms of social protection that we see emerging on the horizon. We focus on how people on the move (whether they be documented or undocumented, voluntary or forced, permanent, short-term/seasonal, or circulating) are protected and provided for.  We examine how people access services and supports available from the state, the market, from NGOs, and from their family members and friends in their sending and receiving countries to construct resource environments. 

The framework we suggest allows us to map how this patchwork, pieced together from resources available at the local, state, and federal levels, varies for different groups and in different localities.  For example, an undocumented Mexican migrant from Puebla who settles in New York City, will have access to a package of resources and benefits based on what she is eligible for in her village of birth, as a resident of the state of Puebla, and as a Mexican national, as well as the services offered by New York City, New York State, and the United States. Her resource environment will differ markedly from a similarly undocumented Mexican counterpart from Zacatecas who moves to Los Angeles, California because the services provided at each level of governance, in each country, are not the same.

More and more people choose or are pushed into living lives that cross borders – earning livelihoods, raising their political voices, caring for family members, and saving for retirement in more than one nation state. Their movements diversify societies that still insist that they are not diverse, bringing languages, faiths, traditions, and histories into daily contact.  They also produce levels of political stratification previously unknown. When large numbers are forced or chose to settle without integration, without full rights or voice, which states, at which levels of governance, will protect them is up for grabs. Rethinking social protection transnationally, and mapping how individuals and households construct resource environments, is an important next step.  

Peggy Levitt, Jocelyn Viterna, Armin Mueller and Charlotte Lloyd (eds) Special Issue: ‘Transnational Social Protection: Setting the Agenda’ Oxford Development Studies 45 (1)

Peggy Levitt is Professor and Chair of the sociology department at Wellesley College and Co-Director of The Transnational Studies Initiative at Harvard University.

Oxford Development Studies is edited at ODID.

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